The downturn in traffic through UK airports is poised to become the greatest in the country’s aviation history. Figures released by the Civil Aviation Authority show an 8% year-on-year decrease in passenger numbers in the three months to June, and a 7% reduction from June 2008 to June 2009.

The 8% fall in the second quarter was an improvement on the 13% downturn in passengers in the first three months of the year. However, the first-quarter decline was exaggerated by heavy snowfall leading to cancelled flights in February and by Easter falling in April rather than March.

The CAA forecasts the decline in passenger numbers will extend for two consecutive years for the first time.

The 7%-8% fall in traffic is in line with the scale of previous downturns in the industry – during the oil crisis and recession of the early 1970s, and in the early 1990s during the first Gulf War – but no previous period of decline has lasted for two years.

The fall in traffic is also the greatest numerically, given UK passenger numbers doubled between 1978 and 1990, and again between 1990 and 2003.

The one heartening sign for airlines is that the 8% decline in passenger numbers has been matched by a 10% reduction in flights – much of it because of airline failures – which has resulted in a tightening of capacity despite the fall in seat sales.

Charter airlines carried 1.5 million fewer passengers in the three months to June than the year before, and scheduled airlines 3.3 million fewer.

The charter passenger decline for the 12 months to June was 4.2 million – 16% of the previous year’s traffic – with the rates of decline at regional and London airports broadly matching.

However, a much greater fall in scheduled traffic from the regions means UK regional airports have suffered an overall decline in numbers relative to London – losing 40% more passengers than London airports in the second quarter, despite handling 10 million less people.